Apocalypse World: Custom Advancement

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The Question & My Answer

Is there any solution that let players play the same playbook potentially forever?

Andrea Ricciardi on Discord

There absolutely 100% is, yes! It’ll take a little bit of work on your part, but you’re in the perfect position to do it and make it work.

It’s: write custom moves for advancement.

There are a number of ways you could approach it. Of them, my recommendation would be to just frankly enlist the players, each player individually. “So, Vincent, you’re pretty much down to ‘retire your character to safety,’ but I get that you don’t want to do that. What do you want to do instead? I can write custom moves for you, to take your character in whatever direction you’d like to go. What’ll it be?”

If you think slowing improvement would help, you could add, “oh but it takes 10xp to get one of these new custom moves, not just 5.” Or 15!

The moves that appear in Apocalypse World and its playbooks have to work across a wide variety of groups and games. The custom moves you write, don’t. They only have to work for this player and this character. They don’t have to work for other MCs, they only have to work for you.

You have tremendous freedom to give the players what they want, and to get what you want too.

Advancement, “Levels” & Scale

Apocalypse World is designed for characters of experience level 1–3. Level 1 is 0–5 improvements, no access to the ungiven future. Level 2 is 6–9 improvements, which probably includes 1 or maybe 2 ungiven future improvements. Level 3 is 10–12 improvements, where they’re about to max out.

Each experience level, roughly, equates to a level of influence in their world. Level 1 characters are worried about today and tomorrow, here and now. Level 2 characters have gotten a handle on their immediate circumstances and are, now, looking up and seeing the horizons around them. Level 3 characters have taken control of their space and are approaching their original horizons, beginning to see the horizons beyond them.

At every level, as MC, you’re thinking “offscreen” at basically the next level up.

So to keep playing past level 3, what you have to do is keep giving the PCs ways to act at the correct scale for their current horizons, and for yourself, you have to keep thinking one step beyond.

Principles

  • Every single rule and subsystem in Apocalypse World is fair game for custom advancements.

Flip open the book to any rule. You can use or change that rule in your custom moves.

  • The implicit limits no longer apply.

For example, in the book, there’s no way for a non-angel character to get a full angel kit. There’s no way to get a large gang if you didn’t start with one. PCs don’t have access to MC moves. Nothing’s worth 4-armor.

When you decide to start writing custom advancements, you’re already leaving these limits behind. Don’t think that they still hold.

  • Don’t limit yourself to custom moves that call for a roll. Most of the advancements in Apocalypse World don’t.

There’s a conventional move structure that you probably think of when you think about custom moves. “When you do x, roll+x. On a 10+, x. On a 7–9, x. On a miss, x.” In fact, this structure reflects only a minority of Apocalypse World’s moves. Don’t be bound by it.

  • You can refer directly to the characters and events in your game.

Since the moves and advancements you’re creating are custom for your own game, you don’t have to generalize them. They can refer directly to the particular people, places, and history of your game.

  • Create things that you, yourself, would like to see in play.

The only way to mess it up is to create something that you don’t like. Nobody else has to use what you create. You don’t have to explain or justify it to anybody else. You and the players are the only people who need to like or understand it at all.

Once you’ve played the game to the point where you want custom advancements, you have a good idea where you’re comfortable as an MC, where you might want to stretch and practice, and what won’t work for you. When I’m the MC, the threat types, impulses, and moves help me a lot, so I naturally rely on them when I’m making custom moves. If they don’t work as well for you, build on the things that do.

As long as you’re creating things that you honestly like, you’re doing it right!

Examples

1. For example, here’s an advancement that breaks the usual limit of 1 hardhold per hardholder:

You’ve effectively taken over Dremmer’s hardhold at last. You get it as a second hardhold, write it up! At the beginning of sessions, alternate which hardhold to roll wealth for.

Try to think through the first-level practical implications — in this case, rolling wealth at the beginning of the session — and decide how you’ll handle them. Here, I chose to alternate, but rolling both every time would work too, as would rolling them together somehow. Your call, and you can certainly get the player’s input on it too.

2. Here’s an example of an advancement for a character who wants to control the flow of drugs and meds in the game. Its references are quite specific:

Your control on the chem traffic in the valley is solidifying. From now on, at the beginning of every session, read it as a situation. As free additional questions, no matter what you roll, you can also ask:
Is there any sign that Dremmer’s making a move?
Is the water cult still the biggest chem consumer or is that changing?
What’s my best opportunity for investment?
In the future, as the situation changes, we can update these free questions.
After you make that move, also be sure to ask me how much profit has rolled in.

This isn’t a particularly powerful advancement. Without it, it’d still be reasonable for the player to start sessions by reading the situation of chem traffic in the valley. But by making it routine and reliable, you’re distinguishing it from the other ad-hoc schemes the PCs have got going, making it concrete and real.

3. Here’s another move that seems more powerful than it is, for maybe a high-weird battlebabe or dangerous skinner:

Your reputation in the valley, especially among your enemies like Dremmer’s people and the water cult, is getting intense. They’ve come to think of you as superhuman, a living nightmare. When you stare into an npc enemy’s eyes, (1) they can’t break eye contact, only you can release them, and (2) they believe you can kill them with a look, so they stop breathing. They suffer d-harm (air), and if you don’t release them, they’ll legit die. Enjoy!

Functionally, it’s basically the same as “you have a garotte, intimate d-harm (air),” but its color makes it seem like so much more.

Any rule in the book — here it’s the rule for d-harm (air), but absolutely any rule — is fair game. Dress it up in vivid apocalyptica and don’t hesitate.

4. Here’s an example for a character who wants to discover the mysteries of the past:

You find an archive from the golden age of legend, a strong secure black box with data storage inside it. In your workspace, you can probably figure out how to access the data. Once you have, you get the move dealing with the archive.

The archive is a landscape threat, a maze. Its impulse is to frustrate passage, and it has the landscape threat moves, especially reveal something to someone, hide something, offer a guide, disgorge something, consume resources (take something away).

Dealing with the archive is just a straightforward adaptation of dealing with bad terrain:

Dealing with the archive: When you go into the archive, tell me what you’re trying to find out and roll+weird. On a 10+, I’ll answer your question from the archive’s point of view. On a 7–9, choose 1:
You gotta slow down. Ask an easier question instead.
There’s a rabbit hole. Ask a different, weirder question instead.
The archive’s working real hard and starting to overheat. I’ll answer your question, but then you have to deal with that problem, or risk damaging the archive.
On a miss, I choose 1 for you. The others are impossible.
Dealing with the archive takes hours or days. Don’t do it when something else is more urgent.

There are only hints of it in Apocalypse World as written, but giving the players access to threats and threat moves has enormous potential.

5. Here’s an example:

You construct a watchtower overlooking the road to the Bitter Wastes. On my side as the MC, your watchtower’s a terrain threat, an exposed place: its impulse is to expose people to danger. It’s yours, though. You can think of it as a “tame threat,” with an impulse to expose your enemies to danger, not you or your allies. Here are the moves you can have it make: stall an enemy, isolate an enemy, bring someone to you, give you a vantage point, give you a secure position. To make these moves, just choose one and tell me that your watchtower tries to do it. I’ll tell you what happens.

This idea of “tame threats” is pretty provocative. As the MC, I’d be interested to see where it takes me. As a designer, I know I am!

Summary

If you and your group want to keep playing the same characters, instead of retiring them to safety or ending the game, you can create custom advances to do it.

Suit your custom advances to the increasing scale the characters are acting at. As MC, keep thinking 1 step bigger.

Any rule in Apocalypse World is fair game, and the original limits no longer apply.

All you gotta do is, make sure you’re creating things that you actually want to see in play. Do that, and the sky’s the limit!

Author:

He / him.

One thought on “Apocalypse World: Custom Advancement”

  • Willow Palecek says:

    Those advancement options are amazing, I love all of them.

    The levels/tiers of play is spot on for my experience… I’ve seen characters with 15 or more advancements, and they warp the game around them at that point. Custom moves that open up in scope definitely would have helped things.

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